Sunday, September 26, 2010

Distributive Justice

The politics of distributive justice is the theme of this week's column for your theological reflection. It was the subject of a talk that Marcus Borg gave recently at St Mary in Kerrisdale titled "The Dream of God: A Politics of Compassion". I later discovered it was a chapter from his book "The God We Never Knew" which allowed me to study the concept in more detail, along with his 2006 book "Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary." Provocative titles but I have the impression that Borg is a credible theologian to Anglicans, or at least for the liberal variety.

Distributive justice is concerned with the equitable distribution of the necessities of life, the giving of the daily bread, for the benefit of all. It also challenges domination systems, prototyped by the Pharaoh, which are ruled by elites and marked by an economics of exploitation, a politics of oppression, and a religion of legitimation. After the exodus Israel created a domination-free society, and maintained it for a couple of centuries, prior to reverting back to the pharaonic system railed at by the prophets. In sermons and visioning meetings in this church, within the last year, we have heard the condemnations of Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Micah.

Marcus gives a concrete example of the injustice of the social world of the old testament times: half of the society's annual production was acquired by the top 1 to 2 percent, and the rural peasants making up 90% of the population had to make do with one-third. If current conditions continue the majority of our aging congregation will live to experience these statistics.

A more common version of justice is retributive or punitive, of crime and punishment according to ethical  law. This assumes that injustice is a result of individual sinfulness and doesn't question the inherent evil of the dominance system itself; the oppressed will still be oppressed even if they and the elites are fully moral. Focusing exclusively on the morality of individuals preserves the status quo.

Some of the oldest portions of the Hebrew Bible were about means of keeping a dominance-free society. The year of Jubilee when all debts were cleared and land reverted back to the original owners was intended to preclude an economically dominated class (and restoring this law was one of the objectives proclaimed by Jesus when he read the Isaiah scroll). The laws against usury were for similar purposes. Not harvesting all of the crops but leaving some for the poor, and giving charity, were means of loving our neighbors as ourselves. The laws that stressed purity and separation were written much later, after the prophets and after the fall of the first temple system. The purpose of these laws was to strengthen tribal loyalty and guard against being assimilated into the "other". We need to reclaim the laws that promote equity and retire the laws that endorse elitism.

Distributive justice is incompatible with dominance systems, so it is necessary to either abandon any pretense to justice or to work towards dismantling the dominance systems and replacing them with more equitable alternatives. We either maintain empire or we establish the "Kingdom of God" here on Earth. This is where collective action is required by communities, with the guidance of the body of the church, to engage in politics.

The three main dominance structures today are: Ongoing war that profits weapons manufactures to the tune of $700 billion a year; a private international reserve banking system based on fiat currency; a mass media and culture machine that promotes individualism and self interest. 

I'm suggesting we take the radical approach of going back to our roots, back to the prophets that preceded the priestly codes, and speak truth to power on these issues. To love life more than we fear death, to seek justice and to live.


This article was published on Oct 25th 2009 in the Chronicle, a weekly service bulletin for the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral.  It took great effort on my part to get it to fit onto a single page. I was also under a lot of pressure since this was the first submission by the Justice Group. The Green Group had been publishing articles for some time and I had talked the powers that be in to allowing one week a month for the Justice Group. I received quite a few positive comments.


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